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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Two Different Worlds

These thoughts were inspired by reading as much as by memory but are not focused on a book, so I'm putting them here, rather than on my main books blog. Also, they follow, at least partially, in some fashion, the previous post on this blog.

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Again and again, reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I re-experienced scenes from childhood as memories surged forth. When Isenberg noted that gardening as recreation was an acceptable part of postwar middle-class life, but growing food on one’s small plot of land was not -- right there, in a single sentence, I saw again the contrast between my two sets of grandparents—my father’s father and stepmother in Columbus, Ohio, and my mother’s mother and stepfather on the edge of Springfield, Ohio.

Springfield grandparents and baby me

The Columbus grandparents led an urban life, the Springfield people rural. Well, kind of. In truth, both were in-between but in different ways. The Columbus neighborhood had probably been a suburb in the city’s early days, and the Springfield neighborhood was more a hodge-podge of poor folks outside the city limits. Lots in both places may have been forty feet wide, but the Springfield lots stretched back a long way from the road, and livestock and poultry were abundant.

In Springfield, the neighborhood had obviously grown up higgledy-piggledy, and the streets – roads? -- were still unpaved in the 1950s. Clay dust squished like talcum powder, deliciously, between bare toes. All up and down the road, in white families and black, the children went barefoot. Some may not have had shoes. I shed mine eagerly to be like the rest.

My grandparents’ street in Columbus was paved, and there were concrete sidewalks, too. Children did not go barefoot in public.

The house in Columbus was solid and, to my child’s eyes, stately, a two-story brick house with a painted concrete front porch the width of the house. The porch featured a rolled bamboo shade for privacy and was always cool in summer. Elements of the backyard were a luxurious lawn, a swing hung from another large shade tree, a hammock, my grandmother’s riotously colorful flowerbeds, and my grandfather’s prize tomatoes, of which he was inordinately proud. In the bathroom, tile gleamed and sparkled. Bedrooms upstairs on the second floor were filled with massive, dark, polished furniture, the beds so high we children had to mount them with footstools. Everything in the house bespoke solidity and respectability.

The frame house in Springfield was a single story and very plain. Originally only a large kitchen, small parlor, and two bedrooms, it had been expanded with a newer, smaller kitchen built around the water pump (thus bringing water into the house), but there was no bathroom at all. We washed at (or were washed in, when small) the kitchen sink, and an outhouse reached by a brick path, laid herringbone style under a long grape arbor, served other needs. The side yard was given over to chickens, the back to fruit trees, raspberry patch, and Grandpa’s large garden. Once the iceman came with his horse-drawn wagon and stopped in front of the house. Slivers of ice for all the children!

My Columbus grandfather was a high school graduate and a union member, engineer first on a steam train and later driver of a diesel engine. His job paid well. I remember my mother remarking once that my father’s family had had meat for dinner every night through the Depression. My father’s sister never had to go to school dressed in a flour sack. Sometimes cousins visited while we were at the Columbus house, but no one ever dropped in unannounced. Visits were arranged.

 My Springfield grandpa worked in a factory, and Grandma trekked to the farmers’ market in downtown Springfield to sell what food (eggs, fruit, vegetables) the family did not need or put up for winter. Their house had no bedroom doors, only sheets hung in the doorways, but their big dining table always had room to accommodate neighbors who dropped in around dinnertime, and my grandmother always found an extra plate and food to fill it.

I loved all four of my grandparents, blood and “step” relations, and did not, when small, differentiate between them on that basis. The differences in the way they lived, on the other hand, were obvious from the start. Both households had enough to eat and to share with grandchildren. Both grandfathers had jobs, and both grandmothers kept house. Still, even as a child I realized they occupied two very different worlds, and experiencing different ways of life from childhood is something I value in the way I grew up.